Dr. Shivam Joshi is a physician on the front-lines of the novel coronavirus outbreak in New York City. Josh Balk is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
As COVID-19 sweeps across the country, dedicated health workers have been toiling tirelessly around the clock, trying to combat the deadly outcomes of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The United States now has the most diagnosed cases in the world. These brave doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers are not just saving patients’ lives, but they are risking their own as well. While it is important that we celebrate their heroic public service, it is vital that we simultaneously examine the root cause of COVID-19 to ensure the prevention of future pandemics.
We now know SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked many of the first human cases to a live animal market in Wuhan, China. These markets provide a perfect storm for this pathogen mixing since so many different types of wild animals, whose immune systems are weakened due to the stress of confinement, are held in tiny cages in close proximity to each other.
When asked about wildlife markets, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said in an interview that countries “should shut down those things right away. It just boggles my mind that when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down.” In a pursuit to prevent future pandemics, it’s important to remember that SARS-CoV-2 is not the first virus to jump from animals to humans. In fact, other deadly outbreaks — such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS and Ebola — can all be traced to human interactions with animals. Recent outbreaks of avian flu and the swine flu both resulted from human contact with farmed pigs and chickens.
Due to the unsanitary conditions where we often raise and kill animals, public health experts have been warning about the potential for a pandemic for years. It wasn’t a question of if an outbreak would happen, but when. And right here in the United States, we are engaging in a practice that’s a tinderbox for the next outbreak.
Most of the eggs and meat we purchase come from intensively confining thousands of animals together in windowless factory farms. These operations each overcrowd animals in extreme confinement for their entire lives. The most notorious examples of confinement include the standard practices of locking pregnant pigs in metal crates so small they can’t even turn around and confining six to eight egg-laying chickens in a single cage so tiny they are prevented from extending their wings.
Forcing animals into extreme confinement not only causes them months, sometimes years, of suffering, it also presents a multitude of public health issues. Factory farming, which relies on animals being held in close proximity, facilitates pathogen movement, including through direct contact between animals, waste and airborne dust, and between farms on equipment and vehicles. A paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives on zoonotic risks suggests that intensive farm animal confinement not only promotes disease transmission, but it also allows pathogens to evolve and provides them a higher chance of survival. Further, because animals packed into warehouses — especially chickens raised for meat — are more susceptible to bacterial spread, producers sometimes feed animals a diet laced with antibiotics. It’s been reported in recent years that as much as 75% of all antibiotics used in the United States have gone to animal agriculture, not as medicine for humans. This startling use foments antibiotic resistance and reduces the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs in humans.
As the World Health Organization notes, there’s a correlation between zoonotic disease emergence, the increase in factory farming and people’s growing demand for animal products. Much like we were warned about a pandemic similar to COVID-19, we have similar warnings now about the risks of how we farm animals.
The time to begin phasing out the intensive confinement systems in which we raise billions of animals is now. We need to accelerate society’s direction of reducing demand for meat from animal factory farms and shift instead to more of an emphasis on healthier — and safer — plant-based foods. As our population grows, plant-based foods are also more sustainable and affordable for societies globally.
Unless we — especially legislators and the food industry — make changes immediately, the concerning practices in animal agribusiness will remain. Only in transforming our food system can we eliminate the tinderbox ready to explode in our country. We can’t afford to wait.